Van the Flower of Southern Womanhood Bloom in the Garden of Southern Politics?
Tolleson-Rinehart, Sue, Southern Cultures
Ah, the flower of southern womanhood: gracious, lovely, and charming. Many features of southern culture have changed greatly over time. In one way, though, the South retains its distinctiveness: it remains the region of the country least hospitable to the election of women to office. The reasons for this are intricately, and inextricably, bound to those notions of southern womanhood.
Even after virtual explosions of women's electoral activity in the mid-1970s and 1980s, and the "Year of the Woman" in 1992, the South has not yet contributed her share of stateswomen to the public realm. By 1997 eight of the ten states with the lowest percentages of women in state legislatures were former Confederate or border states, with Alabama ranking fiftieth (see Table 1). West Virginia, a border state, was among the "highest of the lowest," and another border state, Maryland, broke into the national top ten. Of the states usually thought to comprise the "South"--most often defined as the eleven former states of the Confederacy--only Florida is in the top twenty-five. None of the remaining southern states does well, if by "well" we mean having elected a meaningful number of women. North Carolina, for example, ranks thirty-second in the nation, with six out of fifty North Carolina senators who are women, and only 23 women in a 120-member state house. Texas, despite the very visible presence of elected women like former governor Ann Richards, U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, or Houston's five-term former mayor Kathy Whitmire, nonetheless ranks thirtieth, with a state legislature that is only 18.2 percent female. States with much higher percentages of women in their state legislatures, in contrast, are all, with the noted exception of Maryland, to be found in New England, the West, or the upper Midwest. Washington's state legislature is almost 40 percent female, making it number one; and the "worst of the best," the Connecticut legislature, is still more than a quarter female.
Table 1. The "Best" and "Worst" States for Women's Electoral Success, 1997 Proportion of Women (%) in the Ten "Best" State Legislatures Washington 38.1 Arizona 37.8 Colorado 35.0 Nevada 33.3 Vermont 31.7 New Hampshire 31.1 Minnesota 30.3 Maryland 29.8 Kansas 29.7 Connecticut 28.9 Proportion of Women (%) in the Ten "Worst" State Legislatures West Virginia 14.9 Tennessee 13.6 Alaska 13.3 South Carolina 12.9 Pennsylvania 12.3 Mississippi 11.5 Louisiana 11.1 Oklahoma 10.1 Kentucky 9.4 Alabama 4.3 Proportion of Women (%) by Party in the Eleven Former States of the Confederacy Democrats 70.1 (183) Republicans 29.9 (78)
Source: Center for the American Woman and Politics, National Information Bank on Women in Public Office Fact Sheet (March 1997). Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University. The partisan breakdown of women state legislators was calculated by the author.
Table 2. Women in Southern State Legislatures, 1997 Senate Dem Rep (% Female) Alabama 2 0 (5.7) Arkansas 0 1 (2.8) Florida 2 4 (15.0) Georgia 6 1 (12.5) Louisiana 2 0 (5.1) Mississippi 3 0 (5.8) North Carolina 4 2 (12.0) South Carolina 2 1 (6.5) Tennessee 3 0 (9.1) Texas 1 2 (9.7) Virginia 6 1 (17.5) House Dem Rep (% Female) Alabama 4 0 (3. …